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Building Fluent Vocabulary

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #68, 2005.

How to measure and improve proficiency in vocabulary.

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Michael Maloney

Learning new language skills is an important component of becoming a well-educated individual. Building a comprehensive vocabulary is one of the fundamentals of language development.

Language skills have always been a key indicator of levels of education, social standing and even of intelligence. In the early 1900's, the Paris school system asked psychologist Alfred Binet to find a way to determine which children would succeed and which would most likely fail at school. The most sensitive measure Binet found turned out to be the level of language development the child possessed.

Binet's assessment tool became the first intelligence test ever created. It was later revised and standardized as the Stanford-Binet Test of Intelligence and is still widely used in psychological assessments of many children. The test is heavily loaded with a language component as a key indicator of intelligence. Children with better language skills typically score higher on such tests.

Recent Research

In a recent landmark study, Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted longitudinal research on language development of preschoolers. In their book Meaningful Differences, they report being somewhat surprised to find that children from different socio-economic backgrounds acquired language skills at the same rate, but were limited by the language skills of their parents. The parents' language levels acted as a "glass ceiling" that significantly influenced the language development of their children. Preschoolers raised in language-rich environments had the same level of vocabulary as the parents of impoverished children had by the end of their third year of school.

Such academic research as cited above demonstrates that developing strong language skills is obviously an important task for all children.

Young Learners

Vocabulary is one of the key building blocks of fluent language skills. One of the important early learnings for children is acquiring the vocabulary associated with themselves and their families. Learning personal information including the names of their siblings, relatives, extended family and friends is important. Knowing their address, school, church, organizations of which they are a member and facts about themselves and their families are useful and necessary information for any child. Drawing a family tree and being able to name and explain the family tree is a useful task for younger children.

Children also need to be able to label a wide variety of common objects. This can easily be accomplished with pictures of these objects cut from catalogs and pasted onto flashcards. The picture can test the part-whole relationships of any commonly used object. Various parts of the pictured object can be labeled so that the child learns the component parts of an article. These flashcards can be presented in two ways: the card in which all of the parts are labeled and another identical card without the labels. First the child becomes fluent with the labeled card, then he or she graduates to the unlabeled card.

This process can work for all ages of students, whether they are learning the various parts that make up a dog or the component parts of a microscope.

Each part can also be defined and the definition given as the part is touched. The child might say, "A dog has legs," pointing to the animal's legs in the picture. The child could then elaborate by saying "The dog's legs give it support and helps it to walk and run."

By learning the parts and functions of a variety of common objects, children enrich their vocabulary and understanding of their everyday world.


Another powerful vocabulary builder is to develop the use of synonyms. The parent might say, "Another word for build is construct." Then the parent uses the word in a sentence such as "They are going to build a new house." The student then repeats the statement using the synonym for the original word.

Teaching a child to use a thesaurus at this point is also recommended.

Again, it is an easy matter to construct flashcards with the original word on one side and a synonym on the other side. The level of difficulty of the synonyms varies as a function of the age and current vocabulary of the student. Decks of cards can be passed down from older to younger children with the older children acting as tutors for the younger siblings and getting a thorough review by teaching the terms to another child. The process can easily be expanded to include opposites (big-small).

Naming Differences

Children also learn the meaning of new words by determining differences in pictures.

Most children are familiar with a feature from Sesame Street that shows that "One of these things is not like the others." The child compares the visual images and determines the one difference between the pictures. Learning to vocalize such differences adds new words to that child's vocabulary.

This procedure can be made more difficult by making the comparisons more difficult. Older students might decipher the differences between members of the same species and the features that make them different from one another. E.g. the hawk has a curved beak for eating meat; the sparrow has a short broad beak for eating seeds; and the swallow has a wide beak for catching insects.

Root Words, Prefixes and Suffixes

Another procedure for vocabulary building is to take a root word and see how many new words the student can make by adding any number of affixes and suffixes. Fresh becomes refresh, refreshing, unrefreshing, unrefreshingly, etc. Learning the meaning of the affixes and suffixes helps students understand the possible meaning of the word. Add a dictionary to the mix and the child can now determine the meaning of the word that he or she created and even if such a word exists in the English language.

Using Magazines

Copies of Reader's Digest magazine rarely get thrown out. Most families could probably locate at least a dozen back copies somewhere in the house. The monthly "Word Power" feature is another excellent vocabulary building tool. The student can learn not only a synonym for the 20 terms in this month's offering, but can also look up the meanings for the other options given as choices to see why they are not appropriate as definitions. Students could then be asked to write a sentence using each of the words they have looked up and defined.

Since most of the Word Power segments are dedicated to a theme, it may be appropriate to then ask the student to write an essay on the theme using as many of the definitions as possible.

Second Language Learning

Many homeschooling students also study a second or third language.

Learning the vocabulary of a new language is one of its most time consuming and onerous tasks. Creating sets of flashcards with the term in one language on one side and its English equivalent on the other makes this an easy and portable way to study second language vocabulary.

Children will be limited to approximately 50 terms during a one-minute timing simply because they cannot flip flash cards at a rate higher than that. Laying the cards out in rows on a table, touching each card and saying the term in a second language allows higher per minute scores.

Worksheets with the second language word written in columns and a space for the English term or vice-versa provide another option for the student to demonstrate fluent vocabulary skills.

Students should write somewhere between 20 and 30 words per minute to be considered fluent. They should have no more than two errors if they do the task for one minute.

Measuring Progress

In order to see improvement, it is useful to do a one-minute timing of flashcards or worksheets daily or at least from time to time. The timing is easy to administer and gives immediate feedback on progress or the lack of it. Using the scores of competent students as a guide for others can develop standards for achievement. Each day each student strives for a personal best. Charting the students' progress daily on a chart gives the child a visual representation of the progress they are achieving and allows parents to see when learning has stopped or when a standard has been reached.

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